Using advanced population genomics to better understand the relationship between offshore and spawning habitat use for Atlantic Sturgeon

OCS Study 2020-062
By: , and 



Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) are a large-bodied anadromous fish that historically supported important fisheries along the east coast of the United States. Following years of overharvest and habitat degradation, populations experienced severe declines. In 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed Atlantic Sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA; 61 FR 4722). Their listing named five Distinct Population Segments (DPSs), predicated on genetic groups composed of geographically proximate populations.

Federal management of Atlantic Sturgeon presents challenges, as sturgeon from each of the five DPSs mix extensively in coastal and marine habitats yet take and recovery progress must be evaluated separately for each unit. Genetic assignment testing based on mitochondrial and microsatellite markers allows individuals to be assigned back to their natal river and DPS. However, this approach is not perfect and some individuals may be incorrectly assigned. Recent advances in genomics offer the potential of a higher resolution approach to genetic assignment testing, and thus may reduce uncertainty associated with assignment testing. In addition, genomics allows a greater number of markers to be examined from across a broader portion of the sturgeon genome, thus may provide an enhanced perspective of population structure for the species, and potentially allow other previously intractable questions to be addressed (Bernatchez et al. 2017, Supple and Shapiro 2018).

We used next-generation sequencing to develop a draft genome for Atlantic Sturgeon and identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that could be used to resolve the natal river and DPS of individual Atlantic Sturgeon. We identified 1,210 candidate SNPs within the nuclear genome as well as 49 SNPs within the mitochondrial genome. After filtering and review, we selected 161 nuclear SNPs and 39 mitochondrial SNPs for further testing and evaluation. We used genotyping-in-thousands by sequencing (GT-seq) to simultaneously sequence nuclear SNP loci, mitochondrial SNP loci, and the existing panel of twelve microsatellite loci. This effort required a pilot sequencing run on a single sturgeon sample to test marker amplification and refine primer strengths, followed by a series of sequencing runs to generate baseline data for 288 individuals representing nine populations of Atlantic Sturgeon in four DPSs.

Using baseline data from the nine populations, we ran a series of genomic analyses to characterize diversity within and among populations, providing a benchmark for this species using the new SNP markers. Allelic richness was similar for all populations, although there was a general trend of more northern population containing greater levels of allelic richness. Interestingly, we observed linkage disequilibrium among many pairs of loci within many populations. This might be the result of physical linkage but could also suggest these populations are recovering from genetic bottlenecks and/or are effectively small, leading to specific haplotypes to be favored by chance. Pairwise differentiation among populations varied among the populations (FST range: 0.010-0.098) and was significantly correlated (r = 0.771; P < 0.001) to pairwise FST observed using microsatellite markers). Population clustering and ordination techniques using the new genomic data both support an overall population structure that is similar to the current DPS management units (which were developed primarily based on microsatellite genetic data). Overall, this suggests that existing microsatellite markers and the panel of SNP markers developed in this study provide similar information about the populations structure and ecology of Atlantic Sturgeon. Given the observed differences in allele frequencies among populations, our genomic baseline supports previous assertations that Atlantic Sturgeon show natal homing, despite mixing extensively in marine waters during non-breeding periods. Lower levels of differentiation between populations in the South Atlantic DPS suggest that populations in this region may have greater levels of gene flow relative to their more northerly conspecifics, which has also previously been suggested based on microsatellite data. The observed differentiation among populations provides the necessary foundation for determining the natal river and DPS of Atlantic Sturgeon using assignment testing.

We tested the utility of our new genomic baseline for resolving the population and DPS of Atlantic Sturgeon. Our nuclear SNP markers showed utility for identifying the origin of unknown Atlantic Sturgeon samples, as 86.5% were assigned to the correct DPS and 66.3% were assigned to the correct natal river. However, since this study was funded the Conservation Genetics and Genomics Laboratory at Leetown Science Center has made significant improvements to their microsatellite genetic baseline, which now performs more effectively than our new genomic approach (the genetic baseline includes 12 populations and 5 DPSs, and correctly assigns 95.8% of individuals to DPS and 84.9% of individuals to their natal population using 12 microsatellite loci). We conducted an ad hoc exploration of how additional microsatellite or nuclear SNP loci may further improve the accuracy of assignment testing. We found that additional microsatellite markers are likely to result in greater improvements in assignment efficiency than additional nuclear SNPs. However, a much larger number of SNP loci (which if identified could be sequenced using other methods that are now available; e.g., the RAD-capture approach published by Ali et al. 2016) could produce assignment efficiencies that are greater than what is currently feasible using microsatellites. In the absence of further research and development of additional SNP markers for Atlantic Sturgeon (possibly using an approach other than GT-seq), the existing microsatellite loci are the most effective means available to determine the natal river and DPS of Atlantic Sturgeon encountered in offshore waters.

Because our new genomic markers were less effective than the existing panel of 12 microsatellite markers, we chose to use the existing microsatellite markers to assign Atlantic Sturgeon captured in another BOEM-funded study (cooperative agreement M16AC00003; Monitoring endangered Atlantic Sturgeon and commercial finfish habitat use offshore New York) following consultation with our project officer. Using this approach, we genotyped and assigned 186 Atlantic Sturgeon captured in coastal waters off the Rockaway Peninsula, New York. The vast majority of these sturgeon were assigned to the New York Bight DPS (94.62%), and most appear to belong to the Hudson River population (87.10%) with smaller contributions from the Delaware River population (7.53%). Smaller contributions (2.15%) were observed from six other populations, including those from the James, York, Kennebec, Ogeechee, and Edisto rivers. Although most of the fish we assigned were assigned to the nearest spawning rivers (Hudson and Delaware), the contributions from distant rivers is consistent with the propensity of this species to move long distances and form mixed stock aggregations along the continental shelf. This finding indicates that spawning populations (and their corresponding DPS) from distant locations may potentially be impacted by offshore activities. In fact, activities in this region of the New York Bight could negatively impact Atlantic Sturgeon population from at least four different DPSs. Genetic or genomic assignment testing remains an essential tool to characterize potential impacts to Atlantic Sturgeon populations and should be applied more broadly to better characterize potential impacts of activities in other locations.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Using advanced population genomics to better understand the relationship between offshore and spawning habitat use for Atlantic Sturgeon
Series title OCS Study
Series number 2020-062
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
Contributing office(s) Eastern Ecological Science Center
Description vi, 70 p.
Country United States
Other Geospatial Atlantic Coast
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details